Oregon: Oregon agriculture strives to provide equal opportunity

Release Date: 01/14/2015

For Immediate Release
Bruce Pokarney
Oregon Department of Agriculture
Oregon: Oregon agriculture strives to provide equal opportunity

Oregon, January 14, 2015 – The vision of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. included equality of all races when it came to pursuing a dream. Everyone should be free to seek the profession of their choice, including farming. Even though there are opportunities today for all racial or ethnic minorities, relatively few have made that choice. Less than five percent of Oregon’s 35,439 farm operators are classified as something other than white. The reasons for the low percentage can be traced to the nation’s past when it was especially difficult for minorities to own and operate a farm or ranch.

“Oregon agriculture is color blind and we welcome anyone that’s interested in being involved in farming and ranching in this state,” says Katy Coba, director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture.

As the nation celebrates the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. this year, it should be noted that the low percentage of African-Americans, Hispanics, American Indians, and Asian-Americans farming in Oregon doesn’t necessarily have to stay that way.

The latest Census of Agriculture reports only 105 black farm operators in Oregon, representing less than three-tenths of a percent of all Oregon operators. Nationwide, there are just 44,629 blacks operators out of the more than 3.18 million US farm operators– about 1.4 percent. Southern states report the highest number of black farmers with Texas recording 12,018. The Pacific Northwest historically has not been home for black farmers and ranchers, with only 130 residing in Washington and 37 in Idaho.

Many of the reasons for Oregon’s relatively low percentage of African-American farm operators can be traced back to before and after statehood in the mid-1800s.

“Oregon was settled in the generation that created the Civil War in American history,” says Darrell Millner, professor of black studies at Portland State University. “Between 1840 and 1860, when most of the pioneers came across the Oregon Trail, many of the people came west trying to escape some of the problems and difficulties of the Eastern racial experience. When they got here, one of the things they tried to do to avoid those same kinds of problems was to create a mono-cultural society– basically create a white homeland. Some of the early legislation and political activities of American settlers in Oregon simply tried to exclude blacks from the Oregon experience. Agriculture, in the form of the Homestead Act of 1850, was a very big part of that.”

Exclusion laws in early Oregon didn’t allow blacks to homestead. With no ability to claim land as their own, farming wasn’t an option for 19th Century black settlers. By the 20th Century, blacks had more opportunities in urban areas where the railroad industry was centered. Many blacks who came to Oregon at that time worked for the railroad. The pattern continued right up to the 1940s. As more blacks came to Oregon, they were attracted to those areas where the ethnic group already lived– the cities.

“Many Oregon farmers today can be traced to the homesteading experience and a kind of generational inheritance,” says Millner. “But that doesn’t explain the whole reason for such a small number of blacks in agricultural professions today.”

Nowadays, of course, any ethnic group with the financial ability to own land can farm. However, that is exactly one of the problems, according to Millner.

“A lot simply has to do with the factors that impact any person who seeks to be a farmer today– economic reasons,” he says. “Agriculture often demands a good deal of economic investment.”

ODA Director Coba says that gaining a financial foothold is key for any new person or group of people wanting to get into farming and ranching.

“We have many minorities that work in areas related to agriculture, and if they had some assistance to actually get in and start farming, that would increase the number of minority operators in Oregon.”

Financial assistance programs are available. Under the Socially Disadvantaged Applicants Program, the US Department of Agriculture’s Farm Service Agency (FSA) focuses on providing federal funds for ethnic minorities and females who need help in purchasing land for farming and who need to pay for operational expenses.

“This program specifically provides opportunities for ethnic minorities to begin new farming operations, maintain existing ones, and acquire ownership of farm land,” says Phil Ward, FSA state executive director in Oregon. “Over the past several years, 18 to 20 percent of the dollars FSA has loaned in Oregon has been for women and minority operators.”

Another federal program helps small and family operations as well as beginning and socially disadvantaged farmers secure loans under $50,000. The microloan program aims to bolster the progress of producers through their start-up years. It certainly could help minority farmers who are having difficulty making the financial investment needed to enter the profession.

There are other racial and ethnic minorities listed by the 2012 Census showing some interesting numbers in Oregon. The number of American Indian farm operators shows a decrease over the 2007 statistics. In 2012, there were 995 American Indian farm operators in Oregon compared to 1,391 in 2007. There was a little bit of growth in the number of Asian-American operators, with 525 in 2012 compared to 506 in 2007. There was a rise in Hispanic or Latino operators in Oregon, with 1,489 in 2012 compared to 1,330 in 2007, a trend consistent with the fact that Hispanics represent the fastest growing group in the state's general population.

The upcoming holiday, however, is a time for some to reflect on history.

“You’d think there would be more blacks and other minorities involved in Oregon agriculture,” says PSU’s Millner. “But those historic circumstances of not being able to own land and today’s economic factors have combined to produce that small number.”

For more information, contact Bruce Pokarney at (503) 986-4559.

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